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Movie Review: Fences

Playwright August Wilson adapts his Pittsburgh-based play of the same name, Fences, which won a Pulitzer Prize in the late 1980s, as a movie for Paramount. The result, directed by actor Denzel Washington (Book of Eli, Philadelphia, Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Malcolm X), who co-stars with Viola Davis (Prisoners, Doubt, The Help), is affecting.

Fences is about the folks next door. I knew this when I saw it at the Pasadena Playhouse with Angela Bassett (Malcolm X, What’s Love Got to Do with It) and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Boyz N the Hood). It’s heavy drama about life’s give and take, energy expense and how daily living leaves you feeling spent. Fences‘ easy, natural rhythm in a Western Pennsylvania family’s ordinariness lulls the audience into making too little out of what comes on at first as a bit too strong.

Mr. Washington, whose acting in lesser moments tends to come on too strong, understands the dense material, which is not easily disposed to cinematic adaptation. He lets Wilson’s liberal use of the word nigger disarm the audience and grant a pass to see black people in their middle class, middle century, middle American urban enclave. All the trappings are here, if you think about it: the angry black man, the strong black woman, the young buck.

But Fences is not driven by race. In glances, meltdowns and gestures, Fences shows the toll that mixing tradition, religion and romanticism take on a man, a woman, a friend, a marriage and a family. Before hip hop, Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan, at the dawn of the American exceptionalism of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, there was the uniquely post-war, pre-Civil Rights era of migratory black Americans in industrial cities such as Pittsburgh. Neatly framed Fences bundles this aspect with the onset of progress, unfulfilled lives, the shame of blended families and fathers that abandon children—and fathers that do not—and how the American Negro experience goes the way of becoming universal. Fences gets bleak, serious and sometimes depressing. But it borders and never crosses into maudlin territory.

Like its cultural cousin, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which is more pointed and powerful, Fences drags you down to impel you to pull yourself up.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, an aspirational garbageman who was once a Negro league baseball player and has since become an ex-convict, husband, father, drunkard and motormouth. He’s a loud, extroverted physically powerful man in his early 50s. He’s sexually voracious and he spews and lusts for life. In speeches and backyard scenes where he aims to build a fancy fence made of the finest pinewood, it becomes clear that his undone athletic ability manifests in rage and anxiety. He chastises his sons, rails against mooches and thugs, demands that he be called “sir” and that his youngest son, Cory (perfectly cast Jovan Adepo, who is excellent), keep working at the A & P and forget about a sports scholarship. He groans about the city’s refusal to hire blacks as garbage truck drivers, tells his oldest son and best friend (outstanding Stephen Henderson, Tower Heist, Lincoln) while passing a bottle of gin that he was “scared of my daddy.”

Above all, he tells his wife Rose (Davis), and this is where things get complicated—in the sense that life is sometimes complicated—that he works hard, expends his best efforts and that “[t]hat’s all I got.” He means it. Whatever his flaws and mistakes, he’s telling the truth, if not the whole truth. His pal Bono presses Troy on this topic. Eventually, everyone pays the price of going beyond pre-set boundaries.

That family drama plays out in a modest home filled with crosses, pictures of Christ and The Last Supper and a cheerfully handicapped relative named Gabriel should not be taken literally. Troy bemoans religion and goes by his own thoughts, though he dares the Grim Reaper, invokes the Devil and has faith, not confidence, in himself, which leads to a lazy thinking that yields his greatest flaw—he confuses duty with love—which produces the film’s greatest tragedy.

Showing its stage play origins, Fences is too wordy and expository but the cast, especially the leads, reprising their 2010 Broadway roles, is rich and layered which more than compensates. As a director, Denzel Washington is deliberate and nostalgic, blurring the screen when it matters, adding flowers in the window, dropping a rose at the fence and working with August Wilson to thread the story’s painful codependency into the actors’ faces and performances. The talented Viola Davis and Mr. Washington as wife and husband have adult conversations depicting the impact of ideas—chiefly, selflessness—on the whole of an ordinary life and both give strong performances. Ultimately, Fences blends cautionary and fairy tale and conveys that life is a kind of duty. This philosophy may be 100 percent wrong (it is by my thinking) but here it is planted and pictured with forcefulness, humor, warmth and honesty.

Movie Review: Po

Rational parenting of an autistic child is the topic of director John Asher’s Po, which is currently seeking a distribution deal. The movie, starring Julian Feder as the autistic boy known as Po, Christopher Gorham (Ugly Betty) as his widower father, and Kaitlin Doubleday (Rhonda on Fox’s Empire) as a teacher for autistic kids, gets better and stronger in the second half and it’s made more convincing and complete by the musical score. Colin Goldman wrote the script based on his story with Steve C. Roberts.

Po’s tale hinges on the lessons of widowed parenting. The autism comes into the picture prominently from the start, with young Po struggling at school, where he’s being both mainstreamed and bullied, not to mention overlooked by school officials. Though his Prius-driving, engineer father overcompensates, the mystery of Po is not just what’s driving the boy into his own world but what’s driving his dad’s fear and anxiety.

PoPoster2016With a demanding work project and his job on the line, government child welfare on his back, a wife lost to cancer (which isn’t immediately clear), a kid that colors in mustard on the walls and Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” as a sensory immersion, Po piles a lot on Dad’s plate. This is undoubtedly part of Po‘s point. Some of it drags, doesn’t add up—a ponytailed boss and a British accented character are badly cast—and takes too long or needs editing. But when Po faces the prospect of danger or life in a home for “special needs” kids, his plight and his father’s dilemma come into sharp focus.

The demands of an autistic child are also on full display, thanks to a fine performance by Feder, who is not autistic. Like The Boy Who Could Fly, Silent Fall, Radio Flyer and other remote boy-themed movies, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Po gets into the child’s world and examines reality partly from his distorted or skewed perspective. By the time Doubleday’s blonde autism instructor shows up, it is clear that the father-son bond is taking a beating and the audience wants to know why. Po discovers a friend at school. Meanwhile, his dad discovers the prospect of a hybrid airplane. They spend quality time together with flight as a theme, building and flying model airplanes while the father worries about losing his job and his employer-provided health plan.

At a certain point, Po, who draws pictures of rocket ships, activates his vivid imagination, including a visit by an adult stranger and Po’s solo dance to Generation X with Billy Idol’s New Wave anthem “Dancing With Myself”.

It’s about joy, confidence and loving yourself, Po tells the stranger as he happily hops around to the song, so it’s clear that the son’s intelligence is not in dispute. But his connection to reality is slipping as his dad struggles to keep pace with work, school and parenting an autistic kid. This while he’s being pounded or taunted at school, missing his dead mother and telling his father not to be afraid.

The plot thickens around the notion of departure and, more compelling in the second half, Po keeps the audience guessing with a surprise, suspense and a gentle lesson in doing what’s best for the child, which might not be exactly what you think. Gorham, Feder and Doubleday are fine and the movie unfolds briskly in the second half, aided and masterfully scored by Burt Bacharach, including a new song he wrote which was recorded for the film by Sheryl Crow, “Dancing With Your Shadow”. The legendary songwriter’s score, sparingly rendered with perfection, casts a glow over Po.

The Laemmle Music Hall theater screening included an interview with director John Asher and composer Burt Bacharach (“Close to You,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “Say A Little Prayer”) the great composer, songwriter, record producer, pianist and singer.

Discussing how he and Po‘s song lyricist Billy Mann (“Dancing With Your Shadow”) have an existing connection to autism, director Asher told the tale of his serendipitous commercial airline flight meeting with Bacharach, whom Asher said he didn’t recognize, let alone know about Bacharach’s own tragic link to autistic parenting. His daughter with his former wife Angie Dickinson, Nikki, had Asperger’s, he said, and had been so traumatized by the treatments and ordeal that she eventually committed suicide as an adult. When presented with the opportunity, Bacharach, who said he’d first watched Po without music in a hotel in New Zealand, said he knew that “I could score this with love.”

John Asher, who told the admiring screening audience that he had learned from Bacharach the meaning of musical terms such as resolve and dissonance, explained that Bacharach had the film for two months.

Bacharach told the audience that he is “very proud” of his work for Po and that he seeks to “raise awareness” about autism, which he said he wants to eradicate. He added that he was careful and meticulous with the score, telling Asher that one scene needed no music. When I asked if there’s a moment in Po that he regards as a perfect alignment of movie and music, Bacharach said that’s difficult to say. Later, he cited What’s New Pussycat (1965) as an example of such an alignment because he said he’d found the Peter O’Toole character to be sort of “weird and jagged” which, in turn, inspired that sense in the title song he composed for Tom Jones.

The young child actor who plays Po in the film, Julian Feder, also appeared and, when I asked about his preparation for the role, said he watched What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Rain Man “many times”. But it was Grammy and Oscar-winning Burt Bacharach, whose legacy of popular hits and timeless compositions, many with lyricist and frequent collaborator Hal David, who made the screening memorable. John Asher told everyone that he sought to make a “positive and uplifting” film about parenting an autistic child. With Po, and with help from the parent of an autistic child before such a term was known and more deeply understood, Burt Bacharach, who scores the picture with unmistakable tenderness, I think he succeeds.


Movie Review: Rogue One

The Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, induces fatigue. Though based on a major plot point in the original Star Wars film in 1977—and prominently featured in the marketing campaign—the studio asks for no spoilers and I promise this review is intended to inform and enhance, not distort and detract from, one’s cinematic experience.

That said, I wish I had known more about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in advance. Coming so soon after last winter’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a better movie which takes place after Return of the Jedi, Rogue One starts in a haze of sameness that the uninitiated or occasional series viewer may find disorienting and confusing.

It’s not merely that both pictures sport a British-accented brunette in the female lead. There is also a scientist named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) on strike from developing the Death Star who’s a farmer with a wife and kid on the farm like Luke Skywalker’s uncle in the 1977 movie. Other scenes are strikingly derivative, too, to the point that Rogue One feels like a stew of Star Wars movies you’ve seen before. It’s always on the verge of tying into some previously known plot point.

Aligning everything Star Wars comes at a cost. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this while seeing the current crop of series films (1977-2015) in theaters, but, whenever something remotely familiar in the Star Wars universe (no matter how obscure) appears on screen, certain audience fanatics audibly react, taking me out of the movie and making me stop and think about what connection, if any, what I may have seen (or missed) has to the story and series. It’s mentally exhausting. There’s a lot of that here, and I’m not supposed to say what. A movie should stand alone and Rogue One does, in some respects, but audience response from series fans may get in the way.

RogueOnePoster“Trust the Force” is Rogue One‘s meaning, which is neither more complicated nor more logical than that. Tracking Erso’s daughter (a bland character ably played by Felicity Jones), the tale of mild intrigue revolves around the rebellion’s efforts to halt construction of the evil Empire’s Death Star. As a girl, Erso’s daughter Jyn witnesses an act of heroism and it’s implied that she gets some sort of training (and there’s a kyber crystal) but, more than Rey in The Force Awakens, she inexplicably becomes an adult who’s suddenly imbued with technological, weapons and combat superiority and a curious blend of cynicism and idealism. Lacking sufficient development, Jyn’s journey runs rather flat.

This is not to say that all is dull. Indeed, parents best bear in mind that the Death Star as a means of mass death is fundamental and Walt Disney Pictures’ Lucasfilm doesn’t go soft in this regard. Rogue One reminds everyone that the series created by George Lucas is extremely dark and death-driven. The body count climbs pretty high.

With balmy beaches, jungles, rainy weather, Imperial walkers and destroyers, all kinds of new and familiar aliens, returning cast members, computer generated surprises and new characters, such as a blind monk who may have a same-sex partner (it’s a bit vague) and a drone dubbed K-2SO voiced by Alan Tudyk (42) that’s both less prissy and more jaded than C-3PO, Rogue One has a lot to look at and listen to. Among the new ride-alongs with hard-charging Jyn are a cagey rebel named Cassian played by Diego Luna (the most developed, consistent and interesting character). A pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) seems half-stoned for most of the movie. But even an urban scene evoking Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner channels the series’ proclivity for hooded, cloaked and caped creatures.

All the rebels are divided over an “extremist” (Forest Whitaker, Arrival, Phenomenon, Black Nativity) who proves crucial to the cause, though he’s not in Rogue One for long. Writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) do their best and cram heaps of plot, character and action, especially in the battle-heavy third act, to dramatize the rebellion converging to win the star wars.

“The Force wills it,” someone says in a climactic battle, and Rogue One may be the most explicitly religious of the Star Wars movies, turning the Force into a catchy new chant. An infidel converts to mysticism. So Rogue One is more about having faith than it is about going rogue. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla remake) downplays compelling and ethically and politically-charged points—questioning unchecked government surveillance of communications, what constitutes peace and security and why self-sacrifice is the series’ highest virtue—in favor of the generic idea that buying time for the good to prevail requires faith, sacrifice and mass death, with hope and dry humor sweetening what’s at root a dark and bitter deal.

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

What was it like to be black, female and exceptionally skilled in 1961? This question is at the core of writer and director Theodore Melfi‘s Hidden Figures, a topical, authentic and fascinating look back at mid-20th century American exceptionalism from a fresh and life-affirming perspective. Melfi (St. Vincent), who co-wrote the screenplay, probes beyond racism, making this movie fuller than others in the mid-century American true story genre (Selma comes to mind).

Hidden Figures is as logical as math. As with 42, the movie is direct and linear, so what you see and get is a depiction of the woman of ability in three workers for the U.S. space program: Mary Jackson (singer Janelle Monae, Moonlight), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, Black or White) and Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson, Cookie on Empire)—all working to launch an American astronaut into orbit.

hiddenfiguresposterPrefaced by a flashback that sets this up with a drama of the gifted child, to bend a phrase from Alice Miller, Hidden Figures (based on a book) starts with the trio stranded on a Virginia roadside. Spencer’s Dorothy solves a car problem. Mary sasses. Katherine imagines. A trajectory is charted from there.

The direction is upward, with a few twists and offshoots. Tracking the Soviet Sputnik satellite, which posed a threat to the United States, NASA’s Mercury and Friendship programs and the effort to put John Glenn into orbit, Melfi and company recreate rational action led by a boss portrayed by Kevin Costner (Black or White). Costner’s character personifies the secular humanist theme, reminding his numbers-crunching, Langley, Virginia, team that calculations for putting man into space ultimately redound to the individual and one’s values here on earth.

“Look past numbers”, he urges, a piece of wisdom which applies to today’s aggregated and automated industries—especially to those working in government programs—and choose instead to think. When he needs someone who knows math, up from the team’s pool of segregated black women, despite the instant desegregation, comes a particularly bright Negro named Katherine (Henson). This lady knows advanced math. More crucial to the boss, the mission and her life, she knows how to tune out distraction and avoid any tendency to rationalize. Similarly, and appropos of their abilities, Mary and Dorothy put their goals on track, too, while helping to put John Glenn in space. Glenn, who later became a U.S. senator from Ohio who propagated the welfare state and who recently died, is portrayed as a freethinker.

The script serves each character’s turn. For example, Dorothy (Spencer), going against a bureaucrat (Kirsten Dunst in a career best performance), strives to match her skills to her livelihood. From tinkering with the stalled car to being first to step up to face bad news (the film tracks the civil rights movement, too), her vigorous leadership is integral in her everyday life. Sassy Mary (Monae doing a fine job) chooses to focus her smart mouth on breaking a racist barrier and becoming an engineer. She’s also unashamed to express sexual desire for a white man and do what a white man (who’s a Jew) says he wants her to do as she builds the case for her own cause.

The women in Hidden Figures act for selfishness, not for altruism.

This is undeniable; they do not act for the sake of the race, tribe, sex, God or others. Each woman bases her identity on character and her self-esteem on knowledge gained by her reasoning mind. Dorothy, in a triumphant scene, chooses to reclaim property which she properly regards as hers, explaining the context to her son, who thinks Mom is stealing from the government. Dorothy does this to acquire knowledge, amplifying the point. Octavia Spencer (Snowpiercer, Black or White, Zootopia) portrays Dorothy Vaughan’s determination with precision in a measured performance which underscores that she is one of the screen’s best actresses. So, too, does Henson as Katherine, who meets a man (Mahershala Ali, the drug dealer in Moonlight) during her NASA tenure.

Katherine pushes, tests and strives to be her best against extreme prejudice and this, too, is undeniable. Rarely has the toilet’s role in the American history of ostracizing others been so memorably dramatized as in this sequence of workplace coffee scenes leading up to a total breakdown. Melfi captures the emotional damage inflicted by those moved by collectivism—in this case, by its most primitive variant, racism—upon the individual. He does this through strong and subtle character development in performances which all shine, down to the smallest roles, including his wife Kimberly Quinn’s as Ruth and Jim Parsons’ as lead engineer.

The three leads (and Costner) excel at the top of the cast, showing that each woman of the mind simply tries to do her best work; moreover, each woman enjoys her work and knows its value, which is why the film’s positivism is a crucial, bold and skillfully made decision. Activism becomes an urgent practical necessity born of the clash between progress and bad philosophy, i.e., traditionalism and collectivism.

This is what makes Hidden Figures inspiring. These women were pioneers, yet they were exceptional, producing impeccable results for the greatest nation on earth. Melfi recognizes this, too, and he does so with his trademark poignancy and humor (see his St. Vincent if you haven’t already) in scene after scene. These three women were ambitious, proud and selfish—qualities we’re taught to reject as unsavory—and he honors them both for acting as egoists and as Americans who refuse to opt out of a partly unjust, partly free and changing society. Mary, Dorothy and Katherine, as portrayed in Hidden Figures, act as if they know that their defiance of the U.S. government is an assertion of their moral right to pursue happiness. Each unmistakably acts for her own sake. Yet each acts as unmistakably as a patriotic American. Hidden Figures shows that this alignment was especially, powerfully hard and admirable for the black woman of the mind.

But you need not hold selfishness as the top virtue to find something wondrous and enlightening in the stories of these Hidden Figures.

Though it tends to come off as too good to be true, skimming too much of their lives, Hidden Figures displays a certain love for one’s work—depicting reverence for productiveness—in carrying out a mission which concretizes America at her best. In this way, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures dramatizes that, in America, the individual who calculates what’s in her self-interest can—despite whatever others and the government do to keep her down—reach for the stars and achieve whatever she wants.


Interview: Theodore Melfi on St. Vincent (2014)

Measuring the Apollo Moon Missions (2005)

Movie and DVD Review: Apollo 11

Apollo 11 Premieres on Turner Classic Movies

Neil Armstrong, Astronaut, RIP

Movie Review: La La Land

Has writer and director Damien Chazelle made new magic following his outstanding feature film debut, Whiplash?

LaLaLandPosterYes, and he does so with depth and delight in a fusion of cities, methods and styles. La La Land, apparently in development for ten years, is both experimental and expressionistic, and it is not a musical as that term applies to classic movies. Also, Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March, The Notebook) as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone (Birdman, Aloha) as an actress, reuniting after Crazy, Stupid, Love, can’t be compared to classic movie stars. As with 2012’s memorably romantic The Artist, which La La Land resembles, it’s best to see, hear and take La La Land as it is.

Opening on the interchange of two of the oldest and newest freeways in Los Angeles, the film’s infused with youthful expression. Riding bikes, doing urban acrobatics, gymnastics and exuberant dancing on cars, lanes and guard rails, La La Land begins with singles getting out of cars to dance. It’s winter in the city of angels and the fantasy sets the movie’s tone as two young strangers have an LA encounter.

Depicting Los Angeles as the world’s vital center for artists and entrepreneurs, Chazelle introduces Stone’s actress in an extended musical sequence involving homage, deflation and the ideal. But he gives the first serious dialogue to Gosling’s musician. Pouring a cup of coffee and playing a vinyl record on the Columbia label, the artist struggles and creates. Amid solid, primary colors, piano playing slips Gosling’s Sebastian into another encounter with Stone’s Mia. The two meet after he’s fired by J.K. Simmons (Whiplash).

In long, sweeping widescreen shots, La La Land lets the two leads sing, dance and glide through auditions, deals, gigs and performances and, of course, newly discovered romance. Tracking the duet in four seasons, Chazelle deliberately spins every reason to hate, doubt or envy this beautiful metropolis into reality-based fanfare. Traffic jams, lone drivers everywhere you look, constant warmth and sunshine; Chazelle depicts everything you’ve heard that outsiders hate about LA as a catalyst for what and whom to love.

La La Land comes with realism. This film is not escapism, despite those minimizing it as such. In fact, what’s most distinctive about this picture is its blended, balanced sense of a whole life, specifically, the whole life of one who creates. Chazelle delves into how hard it is to create; how it’s lonely, stressful and agonizing, including why it costs and why the artist’s life is going to be to some degree cruel, not kind. Like the title, La La Land imports what haters regard as artificial about LA and strips it bare, showing that it’s where the artist creates work that adds value, power and life.

This is what matters in La La land, as detractors dubbed Los Angeles long ago, where the city stokes the virtue of productiveness and the productive enlighten the city. Those who envision, create and pursue goals, from Walt Disney to Damien Chazelle, dream, live, love, fail and refocus, as the movie’s turning point demonstrates when a first date to see Rebel Without a Cause (with its climactic scene at Griffith Park Observatory) at an old movie theater sparks an idea to realize the ideal. Springtime comes and goes, with more auditions, an awakening, more money to make and business to do, a classic convertible and a summertime montage of outings in LA. Slowly, songs get jazzier, people get heavier and more relaxed, and drink goes from wine to beer. Singer John Legend makes an entrance (and major movie debut) as a voice of realism and futurism, if not exactly egoism.

That this crucial mid-point comes with a band called The Messengers speaks to La La Land‘s sole deficiency. As an audio and visual feast, it is too pronounced in certain respects and, yet, Justin Hurwitz’s melodies are muted. Don’t take this to mean that they are not good songs. They fit the context, tone and mood. But they make the audience more aware of the movie than the moment. Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul elevate the tunes and the movie. So do Mandy Moore’s choreography, costumes by Mary Zophres and Linus Sandgren’s photography. Again, do not expect the caliber of an MGM musical in look, song and dance.

As Mia and Sebastian strive to bring out the best in themselves, autumn casts change in their LA story. With important references to and scenes in Boulder City, Paris and Boise, each loaded with meaning, the music stops, an alarm sounds and someone storms out in the volatility of hard earned magic, love and life. Failure, rejection and regret are depicted with nods, symbols and cues to classic film points, from umbrellas to The Band Wagon. Los Angeles is essentialized and matched to its organic art of storytelling, and heartbreak, in multicolored tablecloths, downtown LA’s Angels Flight and Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont.

When someone says, “This is home” it isn’t long before someone else says, “You’re a storyteller.” La La Land dramatizes in color, music and dance what knowing, understanding and bridging these two statements means.

Pasting a singularly eye-popping segment involving Tom Everett Scott (That Thing You Do) in a small but critical role, a silhouette and a reference to The Red Balloon, La La Land exits with one long, last take toasting the visionary who is both rebel and romantic. It’s a hymn to Los Angeles (and its cousin, Paris), celebrating with lightness and seriousness that LA is where idealists make what’s ideal become something meaningful and real.